Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney likens oil company bosses' responses to those of tobacco industry at historic hearing.
Exxon Mobil Chairman & CEO Darren Woods meets with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound on September 7, 2018 in Beijing, China. Mark Schiefelbein / Pool / Getty Images
By Chris McGreal
This story originally appeared in the Guardian and is part of ""Climate Crimes,"" a special series by the Guardian and Covering Climate Now focused on investigating how the fossil fuel industry contributed to the climate crisis and lied to the American public.
By Chris McGreal
This story originally appeared in the Guardian and is part of “”Climate Crimes,”” a special series by the Guardian and Covering Climate Now focused on investigating how the fossil fuel industry contributed to the climate crisis and lied to the American public.
The chief executive of ExxonMobil, Darren Woods, was accused of lying to Congress on Thursday after he denied that the company covered up its own research about oil’s contribution to the climate crisis.
For the first time, Woods and the heads of three other major petroleum companies were questioned under oath at a congressional hearing into the industry’s long campaign to discredit and deny the evidence that burning fossil fuels drove global heating. When pressed to make specific pledges or to stop lobbying against climate initiatives, all four executives declined.
The chair of the House oversight committee, Representative Carolyn Maloney, pressed Woods about statements by his predecessor, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, who in the 1990s said the scientific evidence for climate change was “inconclusive” and that “the case for global warming is far from air tight”. In 2002, Exxon ran advertisements in the New York Times calling climate science “unsettled”.
Malone put it to Woods that Exxon’s own scientists had repeatedly warned the company about the threat from burning fossil fuels as far back as the 1970s.
“There is a clear conflict between what Exxon CEO told the public and what Exxon scientists were warning privately for years,” she said.
Woods denied that Raymond or Exxon misled anyone.
“I do not agree that there was an inconsistency,” he said.
Maloney said the response reminded her of “another hearing that we had with the tobacco industry”.
“They said they did not believe that nicotine was addictive. Well, it came out that they lied. Tobacco nicotine was very addictive. And now I’m hearing from you that the science that was reported publicly, where your executives were denying climate change, we know that your scientists internally were saying that it’s a reality,” she said.
“So I was hoping that you would not be like the tobacco industry was and lie about this.”
The heads of the American operations of the other oil companies – Shell, Chevron and BP – were also firm in resisting pressure to admit they misrepresented climate science or deceived the public.
They each said that they recognised global heating was a reality and a major challenge. But the executives did not accept that their companies had failed to take it seriously or that they were undermining attempts to cut greenhouse gases by funding trade groups pouring millions of dollars into lobbying Congress against tighter environmental laws.
“We accept the scientific consensus,” said Michael Wirth, the CEO of Chevron. “Climate change is real. Any suggestion that Chevron is engaged in disinformation and to mislead the public on these complex issues is simply wrong.”
But Maloney accused the oil companies of continuing the cover-up, including by hiding documents. She said she would take the unusual step of issuing subpoenas to force the firms to reveal what they knew.
“We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign and with these subpoenas we will,” she said.
The oil and gas industry, which spent about $100m on political lobbying last year, was strongly backed by a number of Republicans on the committee who sought to distract by denouncing Joe Biden’s energy policies.
Republicans called their own witness, Neal Crabtree, who said he lost his job as a welder within three hours of Biden being sworn in as president because the Keystone pipeline was cancelled. Crabtree was used to portray Biden as colluding with China and Russia against America’s oil industry.
The highest-ranking Republican on the committee, Representative James Comer, questioned the legitimacy of the investigation. He said the committee would be better off spending its time investigating the White House’s handling of inflation, illegal immigration and the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In a hearing meant to focus on climate misinformation, several Republican members openly questioned the urgency of the climate crisis. Representative Clay Higgins called the hearing “a threat from within” because the American way of life was built on oil.
Another Republican member said Maloney owed the oil executives an apology for intruding on their right to free speech by pressing them to make a commitment that their firms will “no longer spend any money, either directly or indirectly, to oppose efforts to reduce emissions and address climate change”.
None of the executives would make a direct commitment.
Maloney showed the hearing a video secretly recorded by Greenpeace earlier this year of an Exxon lobbyist describing the oil giant’s backing for a carbon tax as a public relations ploy intended to stall more serious measures to combat the climate crisis.
“How did Exxon respond?” asked Maloney. “Did they come clean about this shocking conduct? No. Mr Woods called Mr McCoy’s comments inaccurate and then they fired him. And they are obviously lying like the tobacco executives were.”
While the oil executives largely maintained a united front, Representative Ro Khanna, a leading critic of the petroleum industry on the committee, drew out testimony that showed the European companies, Shell and BP, were working to cut production while the US firms, Exxon and Chevron, intended to increase drilling in the coming years.
Wirth said that his company would raise oil production while cutting carbon admissions.
The hearing also questioned the leaders of two powerful lobby groups accused of acting as front organisations for big oil, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce.
Khanna noted that API was heavily funded by oil company money as it resisted the expansion of infrastructure for electric vehicles and opposed a methane fee backed by Biden, including flooding Facebook with advertisements in recent months.
Khanna challenged each of the oil executives in turn to resign from API over its position on electric vehicles or to tell it to stop its opposition to a methane fee. All of them declined to do so.
Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem. He is the author of American Overdose, The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts.
By Georgia Wright, Liat Olenick and Amy Westervelt
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
By Georgia Wright, Liat Olenick and Amy Westervelt
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
For too long, Americans were fed a false narrative that they should feel individually guilty about the climate crisis. The reality is that only a handful of powerful individuals bear the personal responsibility.
The nation’s worst polluters managed to evade accountability and scrutiny for decades as they helped the fossil fuel industry destroy our planet. The actions of these climate supervillains have affected millions of people, disproportionately hurting the vulnerable who have done the least to contribute to global emissions.
Working- and middle-class people must stop blaming themselves for the climate crisis. Instead, it’s time to band together to seek justice and hold these profiteers accountable. Only in calling out their power and culpability is it possible to reclaim the world that belongs to all of us, together.
Chairman of the board and CEO of Chevron
Mike Wirth captains Chevron, a notorious corporate polluter responsible for one of the highest total carbon emissions of any private company worldwide.
Under Wirth’s direction, Chevron has pursued several greenwashing tactics to downplay the company’s environmental impact. A coalition of environmental groups filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Chevron earlier this year saying it misled the public by claiming responsibility only for carbon emissions associated with refining and transporting oil, not the total emissions created by the product it sells.
Wirth also sits on the board of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group with a long track record of spreading climate denial and delaying legislative efforts to curb carbon emissions.
In his own words: “Let them plant trees.”
Chairman of the board and CEO of Exxon
ExxonMobil is publicly known as one of the first oil companies to become aware of climate change, more than 40 years ago. Still, Exxon spent millions of dollars spreading climate denial while simultaneously contributing the fourth largest amount of carbon emissions of any investor-owned company in the world.
Woods, who has been with the company since 1992, makes more than $20 million a year. And though he expressed support for the 2015 Paris agreement to substantially reduce global pollution, leaked documents showed his plan for the company to increase its emissions by 17% through 2025.
Earlier this year, Exxon lobbyists were captured on video revealing the company’s efforts to obstruct climate legislation in Congress. Woods later tried to distance himself and the company from the lobbyists, saying they “in no way represent” Exxon’s position.
In his own words: Woods once called carbon reduction standards “a beauty match, a beauty competition.”
CEO of Chase Bank
Billionaire Jamie Dimon is top dog at JP Morgan Chase, which has provided $317 billion in fossil fuel financing – 33% more than any other bank – since the Paris agreement was adopted in 2015. Under Dimon, Chase has also funneled more than $2 billion into tar sands projects between 2016 and 2019.
When Chase’s managing director, Greg Determann, was asked early this year if the company would still lend to oil and gas companies despite the worsening climate crisis, Determann replied: “‘Mr. Dimon is quite focused on the industry. It’s a huge business for us and that’s going to be the case for decades to come.”
In his own words: “The solution is not as simple as walking away from fossil fuels.”
CEO of BlackRock
As the chief executive of BlackRock, Fink oversees one of the world’s largest fossil fuel investment portfolios, with $87 billion behind the industry.
And though Fink has made sweeping climate promises and even wrote an op-ed about achieving a “net-zero” world, his company has profited off deforestation – a major cause of rising emissions – more than any other company globally.
Fink has also pushed BlackRock to vote against pro-climate action shareholder resolutions – all while angling for money from the federal government that should go to climate projects.
In his own words: “Without global action, every nation will bear enormous costs from a warming planet, including damage from more frequent natural disasters and supply-chain failures.”
Chairman and CEO of Koch Industries
Alongside his now-deceased brother David, Charles Koch has a lengthy résumé of climate malfeasance. The multibillionaire is the longtime head of Koch Industries, a refining, petrochemical and pipeline company labeled by Greenpeace as a “kingpin of climate denial.”
The Kochs, and particularly Charles, moved early to politicize climate change. Charles founded and funded the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank known to coordinate and distribute climate denial, which became the first organization to stoke the ideological divide on the climate crisis. Koch Industries went on to spend nearly $150 million financing climate denial groups between 1997 and 2018 alone.
Since his brother’s death, Charles has attempted to backtrack on his legacy of sowing hyper-partisan division. But according to OpenSecrets, Koch Industries is the top spender ($5.6 million) on annual lobbying on oil and gas so far this year.
In his own words: “Boy did we screw up. What a mess!”
Senate minority leader
Mitch McConnell admitted to believing in human-caused climate change only in 2020. He is also the chief architect of ongoing Republican obstructionism. Under President Obama, whose climate actions he smeared as a “war on coal,” McConnell used the filibuster to block even tepid climate reforms supported by a majority of Americans.
Under Trump, McConnell nuked the judicial filibuster in order to put three anti-science, pro-corporate justices on the Supreme Court, including Amy Coney-Barrett, who maintains deep family ties to big oil (her father worked at Shell for decades). And now, McConnell is ensuring that 100% of Republicans will vote against all of Biden’s climate agenda.
McConnell is also heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry, to the tune of more than $3 million over the course of his infamous career.
In his own words: “I’m not a scientist.”
Today, Joe Manchin is most famous for being a swing vote for important legislation, but the real story is how the fossil fuel industry made him mega-wealthy through two coal companies he founded in the 1980s.
While even coalminers in his home state of West Virginia support a Green New Deal, Manchin uses his position to hold climate legislation hostage on behalf of the fossil fuel industry – which he is doing by threatening to vote against Biden’s Build Back Better climate agenda. The Exxon lobbyists caught on tape earlier this year specifically identified Manchin as “their guy,” and said they meet with him several times a week.
According to OpenSecrets, Manchin takes more money from the fossil fuel industry than any other Democrat.
In his own words: “If you’re sticking your head in the sand, and saying that fossil [fuel] has to be eliminated in America… and thinking that’s going to clean up the global climate, it won’t clean it up at all. If anything, it would be worse.”
Facebook founder and CEO
Zuckerberg, whose net worth is $120 billion, shows a consistent willingness to profit off the spread of climate denial on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. In April 2021, Zuckerberg told Congress climate misinformation was “a big issue,” yet Facebook has done little to rein in climate denial or challenge the fossil fuel industry.
Last year, pro-fossil fuel Facebook ads were viewed 431 million times. In just the first half of 2020, ads on Facebook calling climate change a hoax were viewed at least 8 million times in the United States alone.
In 2019, an article falsely attributing climate change to Earth’s solar orbit went viral, accumulating millions of views without intervention by the company. And this year, one report found that in just the first two months of 2021, Facebook spread climate denial to more than 25 million people, including posts about wind turbines being to blame after Texas froze over in February.
Meanwhile, Facebook has muzzled actual climate scientists trying to share peer-reviewed research.
In his own words: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”
Founder of News Corp
The father of international media conglomerate News Corp and the CEO of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and many other outlets, Australian American tycoon Rupert Murdoch has overseen his companies’ rampant spreading of misinformation and climate denial for decades, netting him over $23 billion.
Although Murdoch has claimed his company does not support climate denial, his news outlets have published article after article sowing doubt in climate science. Meanwhile, as of 2019, more than 80% of climate coverage on Fox News was steeped in denial, according to an analysis by the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen.
In his own words: “Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here, and there will always be a little bit of it.”
CEO of Cargill
Rainforests are the most important climate regulators in the world. But Cargill, a global food corporation helmed by MacLennan, has a profit model based on rainforest destruction caused by soy and beef production, particularly in the Amazon.
MacLennan has been in charge of the company’s global strategy since 2013. He was calling the shots when, in 2019, former congressman Henry Waxman called Cargill the “worst company in the world,” referring to its track record on deforestation.
Thanks to public pressure, Cargill did recently declare a moratorium on buying agricultural products from illegally cleared rainforest, but there is evidence that under MacLennan’s leadership, the company is already ignoring its own commitment.
In his own words: When asked why Cargill wasn’t eliminating deforestation from its supply chain: “The supply chains in Brazil are very complicated.”
CEO of Edelman PR
Edelman heads the global communications firm Edelman PR, which made tens of millions of dollars over the years by working with fossil fuel companies. His firm has created multi-pronged PR, advertising and lobbying campaigns with ExxonMobil, TransCanada, the American Petroleum Institute and Shell – prompting high-profile clients and executives to leave over the firm’s work peddling climate denial.
In 2015, Edelman announced that the firm would stop accepting climate denier assignments, but he has since claimed that the firm’s work for Shell, ExxonMobil and more don’t technically qualify as climate denial.
Tax filings show that since that 2015 announcement, the firm has raked in $12 million for its work with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers alone, whose most recent focus has been increasing criminal penalties for pipeline protesters.
In his own words: “I’m proud of what our firm is doing to build a house of trust through our mission, values, and actions.”
THE SMOOTH TALKER
Partner of Gibson Dunn law firm
As Chevron’s lead attorney and the main spokesman for all the oil companies in some two dozen climate liability cases, Boutrous sets the agenda in answering to the fossil fuel industry’s decades of lies about climate change. His argument before the courts hinges on the idea that every person shares equal blame for the climate crisis, and that it’s “counterproductive” to hold the fossil fuel industry particularly responsible.
Law Students for Climate Accountability rates Gibson Dunn among the worst of the worst on its climate scorecard for having the second-highest amount of fossil fuel litigation work of all 26 firms the group evaluated.
In his own words: “Chevron is a great company and great client with a strong culture of social responsibility.”
lllustrations by Jason Goad
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. Mark Hertsgaard is Covering Climate Now’s executive director.
By Mark Hertsgaard
This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story. Mark Hertsgaard is Covering Climate Now's executive director.
By Mark Hertsgaard
The CEOs of Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron face a Capitol Hill hearing on their climate crisis lies – will it mirror the downfall of big tobacco?
This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story. Mark Hertsgaard is Covering Climate Now’s executive director.
Darren Woods will face a potential doomsday moment before the US Congress at the end of the month.
As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Woods was paid $15.6m last year to run the richest, most powerful private oil company in history. But his earnings and influence will be on the line when he appears before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on 28 October. His testimony could mark the beginning of the end of big oil escaping legal and financial responsibility for the climate crisis.
Joining Woods, assuming that they all show up without being compelled by subpoenas, will be the heads of three other giant oil companies: Michael Wirth of Chevron, David Lawler of BP and Gretchen Watkins of Shell Oil. The Big Oil 4, let’s call them, will be questioned about what members of Congress call a “long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming.”
For the Big Oil 4 and their public relations advisers, the nightmare scenario is that 28 October will mirror the infamous congressional hearing that led to the downfall of big tobacco. On 14 April 1994, the top executives of the seven biggest tobacco companies in the US appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, chaired by Henry Waxman of California. Each executive solemnly testified that, no, they did not think that nicotine is addictive.
CNN and C-Span carried the hearing live, and big tobacco became a national laughingstock – and legal target – overnight. A photo of the CEOs of Phillip Morris, R J Reynolds and their counterparts, right hands raised as they were sworn in, ran on the front page of the next day’s New York Times, sparking further media coverage.
Here’s the part that today’s big oil chieftains particularly don’t want to see repeated: five weeks after that hearing, the first lawsuit was filed in what became an avalanche of litigation that resulted in a $206bn judgment against big tobacco and a permanent sullying of its public image.
The parallels with big oil today are uncanny. The big tobacco lawsuit was “premised on a simple notion”, said Mike Moore, the attorney general of Mississippi, who initiated the case: “You caused the health crisis – you pay for it” by reimbursing states for the extra costs that smoking imposed on their public health systems. Replace “the health crisis” with “the climate crisis” and you have the very same argument that New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and dozens of other state and local governments have made in their pending lawsuits against oil companies.
And just as tobacco companies lied for 40 years about the dangers of smoking, so too have the oil companies lied for decades about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. They saw today’s climate crisis coming – their own scientists repeatedly warned top executives about it – and decided, bring it on.
Given the stakes, it’s odd that the CEOs of ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell aren’t better known. As much as anyone, they are driving the earth’s climate into chaos, yet most of us don’t even know their names. The climate conversation usually focuses on governments and the politicians who run them, while the companies whose products cause the problem – and the executives who get paid astronomical sums for doing it – remain in the background. Which is doubtless how they like it.
So, let’s remember the names of the Big Oil 4 – Darren Woods of ExxonMobil, Michael Wirth of Chevron, David Lawler of BP and Gretchen Watkins of Shell Oil – and pay heed to what they say, or don’t say, at the 28 October hearing.
If we’re lucky, C-Span and other cable networks will carry the hearing live. Watching the Big Oil 4 twist themselves into knots to avoid a repeat of big tobacco’s debacle would be high entertainment, not to mention a bracing lesson in how elected officials can hold amoral corporations accountable.
The big tobacco hearing made history with one simple question: do you think that nicotine is addictive? Here’s the question for the Big Oil 4: will you apologize, here today, for your company’s decades of lying about climate change?